THE THEATER MIRROR, Boston's LIVE Theater Guide


One Good Night

by Larry Stark

The best trombone I ever heard was the night Vinnie Decker sat in at the Cathouse. The Cathouse Five plays fast, solid after- hours sounds every morning. They've been at it for five years now. I like to go there mostly out of habit, and because the food is good, and because Charlie Dickerson is an old musician and I like to hear him talk between sets. And, about once every two weeks, on a rough estimate, Charlie has a good night with his slip-horn. It's usually nothing to write home about, but I enjoy watching an old friend suddenly come alive and outdo himself. It may not be worth DOWNBEAT's notice, but it makes me glad to know that Charlie is doing much better than he has all week.

But something fantastic happened the night Decker stepped on the stand. Moe Jamison who leads the Cathouse Five usually makes a little show of introducing any big-name jazz soloists who happen into the place and often, when they're not too tired, they sit in on a number or two. Moe's little band is a collection of old-time pro's who like to play, and even some of the cool boys like to take a few choruses and rest up. With Vinnie Decker, though, it was different.

Decker is Max Weiner's new flash-card: the most talked-about sax artist since Lester Young, or maybe even Parker. He had a couple of big records under his belt, and Max was building him for all it was worth. I always thought he was a little young, but then I never did understand the record business. When Moe gave him the intro, Vinnie was too young to be tired, and too full of music to do just a fast solo-act for a number or two and sit down. Maybe innocence is the word I want here.

Anyway, he blew simple and easy through two numbers, taking a couple of unimpressive solos that people applauded because he was a name. But you could see him soaking up Joey Brown's bass-beat, and watching the way Wally Wein underscores Joe Haines' trumpet- work with the snare and cymbals. And then, after the second number, Vinnie asks Moe if they have an arrangement of "Stomp Mr. Henry Lee", and things began to happen! It seemed an odd thing for Vinnie to ask for, him being a way-out modern soloist, but it turns out this kid has been playing anything and everything since he was fourteen, and he knows the Cathouse Five's corny old book almost as good as Charlie, or Wally Wein.

On the second chorus of "Stomp" Vinnie plunged right in with the ensemble, and they practically rattled the walls down for a solid hour after that. It was like he and Charlie came from the same home town. I don't think I've seen a happier bunch of musicians in my life. And Vinnie, he was all over the stand -- feeding, pushing, backing Haines' solo, pumping ideas at Moe, shaking so much out of one ensemble out-chorus I had tears down both cheeks and shouted my head off. Then they finally wound it up with Vinnie and Charlie on a twelve-bar double-timed duet on "My Blue Heaven" that tore the place apart. Fine and fast, and every note perfectly placed. I'd never seen the Five come alive like they did that night. And Charlie seemed like someone reborn.

They came off the stand laughing and sweating and slapping one another on the shoulders, like a football team that just won a championship game. You could hear the wonder in their voices. "Man, were we clickin' tonight!" "Did you hear it? Man, did you Hear it!" "Oh Lord, when you slipped into B-flat for that last chorus.. "

"Jesus God, Charlie, what got into that horn?" I said, pumping his hand like a kid.

"It seemed real easy, Mr. Lee," he answered, almost a little dazed. "That Mr. Decker's sure an easy man to play with."

"There he is." I heard Decker's voice cut through the crowd murmur. "Ask him, Max. Go ahead, ask him."

Big, beefy Max Weiner brushed through the excited patrons, took a stubby cigar out of his mouth, and extended a soft, pudgy hand. "Great work, Charlie. Where you been hiding it all these years?"

"It wasn't just me, Mr. Weiner. Everybody worked good tonight. You got a great boy there, Mr. Weiner."

"The boy takes a shine to you, too, Charlie."

"He's the greatest," Vinnie Decker said, hanging over Max's shoulder and squirming with ecstasy. "He's got a lift that works every time. Man, I never got a kick like that from playing! Ask him, Max."

Max squinted across at Charlie with his head to one side, mumbling past his cigar. "The boy here wants you should record that 'My Blue Heaven' with him. I think it would be a good idea."

"No, Mr. Weiner, I don't think I could."

"No, I want him in the band, Max. In My band I've got to have him. Man, this is what I want to play, all the time! We could ditch Charlie Rossen and get a good old-time skins man, and add a trumpet and Charlie's trombone, and we'd really be going places. Wha'dya say, Charlie?"

"Now slow down, Vinnie," Max said. "I tell you, there ain't as much money in this revival stuff. I'm not so hot on the idea."

"Oh there is if you play it right, Max, play it good, play it fresh and as though you meant it. And this guy sure plays it like he means it all right. You're good, Charlie, you're great. I'm going to make you a great jazz-man, Charlie. I'll make you as famous as you deserve."

"Does Moe have you under a recording contract, Charlie?" Weiner wanted to know. "Even if he does, let me talk to him. I'm sure we can straighten it out somehow."

Charlie smiled awkwardly and gazed at his toes, shaking his head slowly. "Thank you, Mr. Decker; I 'preciate the compliment. But I got a pretty good job here now. I'd kinda hate to leave. And, anyway, I ain't no jazz-man, Mr. Decker. Not really."

"You sure as hell are!" Vinnie exploded. "I've never heard anything like it. I didn't think anybody could play like that any more. Why, you made me try things tonight I wouldn't have thought I could do. What are you talking about?"

"But that was Tonight , Mr. Decker. I was just kinda lucky." Charlie's face assumed almost a pleading look. "You wouldn't want me all the time. I'm -- not always that good."

"So? Hell, we all have our bad nights. But even playing a little off, you'll make me sound better than I ever have. What do you say?"

"Thank you kindly, Mr. Decker. But I better not."

"But I don't see why you.. "

"You weren't up on pot tonight, were you Charlie?" Max asked, cutting into Vinnie's excited speech with a cold, curious stare.

Charlie gave a short, explosive laugh. "The only thing got me so high tonight was this saxophone here, Mr. Weiner. I never felt so good as when he jumped in, right along with us, and started jazzin' up the pace. It was real good, and I'll never forget it. But I don't know if it'll ever be that good again. I'd better stick with Moe."

"But Charlie.. "

"Well, I'm not so hip to the idea as the kid here," Max said. "Still, I must say I think you're making a big mistake. Come on, Vinnie, you're wasting your breath. If you change your mind, Charlie, come round."

Max turned to go, and Vinnie with him, whining "But Max, I don't understand this.. " into his ear.

"Thank you Mr. Weiner, I'll think about it," Charlie called after them. Then he ordered himself a beer at the Cathouse bar.

I joined him.

"You know, you might be making a big mistake, Charlie," I opened.

"I know that, Mr. Lee," he said. "But then, I know myself better than they do. Better than you do, too. I been playing trombone twenty, twenty-five years now. Me and that horn got to know one another pretty good in that time."

Just then Moe Jamison came up behind us. Moe is a ratty little piano player who looks like he ought to have a derby hat, no coat, and garters on his shirt-sleeves whenever he sits down at the keys. He's a long-time professional, like Charlie, and hasn't missed a night of work in the five years the Five has worked the Cathouse. He said hi to me and heisted onto a stool between me and Charlie, ordering a beer.

"You done real good tonight, Charlie," Moe said.

"So did you. We all did. Damn good night all around."

Moe took a long gulp of beer, and sat fiddling with his glass for a long, silent moment.

"Charlie," he began, "you don't owe me nothin'. We ain't got no contract. You want to record with Decker, it's okay with me. Might be a good idea to go when you got the chance. Get some things workin' for you, recordin'-wise. Make yourself a little change in royalties."

"Thanks Moe," Charlie said, "but I ain't leavin'. I know when I'm well off. I be here another five years, if you are."

"Make a lot of change recordin' with Vinnie Decker," Moe observed.

"Ah, what kinda life is that? Up recording all hours, in broad daylight? Playin' with guys I've never even seen before? I like it here, Moe. I don't wake up till eleven at night. Besides, you gotta stay good when they givin' you big money. Gotta stay at least as good as tonight. You think I could do that, Moe? I don't."

Moe shrugged his shoulders. "Suit yourself, Charlie." He gulped down the rest of his beer. "I just wanted you to know, if you want to go, I won't feel bad about it."

"Thanks Moe. I guess I knew you'd say that."

Moe mumbled something about getting the charts ready for the last set, and left the bar. Charlie and I did a little stein- staring.

"That Moe," Charlie said at last. "He always been real straight with me. He knows if I cut out he could get Billy-Joe Davisson to take my place easy as if nothing had happened."

"He's right about the money in records, Charlie," I reminded him. "And Vinnie Decker's hot this season. You'd be right in on the ground floor of Max Weiner's publicity buildup. Why don't you give it a try?"

Charlie turned toward me. "But I'm no jazz-man, Mr. Lee. Only some nights. I'm just an ordinary, play it like its wrote down pit-band player. I don't get ideas when I'm playin', Mr. Lee, and when I do, half the time I forget how they went before I'm off the stand. I just don't improvise much. I'm no good at it."

"You did tonight."

"That was tonight. Tonight something good happened. Mr. Decker and me, we had a good night. He woke me up. I was rememberin' things, and he was helpin', and everybody else was, too. Even Moe got in some good licks I never hear very often. Tonight my fingers were workin' right, and my lip didn't give out too soon. And it was exciting working with Mr. Decker. Tonight I was lucky."

"Maybe you'd be lucky more often if you stick with him, Charlie."

He smiled. "Playing a new book, with guys I don't even know? Mr. Lee, didn't you notice? We didn't play a thing all night that wasn't one of our standard numbers for two, three years. I had years to think up what I done tonight, years of polishin' and practicin' along with the boys. And that Mr. Decker, he played along with us real good, so it looked like we was makin' it up as we went along. He's a born musician, Mr. Lee, a real jazz-man. I'll bet he didn't even know we were just playin' along, almost like we always does, except maybe a little sharper, and he was just fittin' himself in, off the cuff. He's a real great musician, Mr. Lee. But what if tomorrow I ain't so sharp? What if I forget some of my tricks, like I usually do? What if I never find any new ones, and just play the same old things over and over? That ain't bein' a jazz-man, Mr. Lee. They pay you to be a jazz-man, you got to be this good every night .. better every night. It ain't my racket. I'm just a pit-band musician."

Charlie fell silent, maybe feeling self-conscious, and devoted himself to the beer before him. I didn't know what to say so I kept quiet, and guzzled a little for want of something better to do.

Finally Charlie turned to me and said, "I take this job, and inside six months, or a year, I'm washed up. I played it All tonight, everything I thought up that was new, everything I remember from back in Chicago, and K.C. Six months trying to cut records, tryin' to be good and be new every damn time, and I be dried up, finished. And once they catch on I ain't got nothin' new comin' out each time, how long you think I last?" He shook his head. "Moe don't care if I ain't as good as Vinnie Decker."

And then a change came into his eyes. He seemed to be looking far off, at nothing in particular. "But some nights, I am good. Some nights my chops work right, and I remember all of it." He nodded. "I be good again. Maybe never as good as tonight. But, now I Have tonight. I know how good I was this once. And, maybe, if I don't push it too hard, maybe I be that good again."

About then Moe called the boys back onto the stand. They were tired, but the crowd was fired up and applauded everything like crazy. I saw Vinnie and Max sitting and talking at a rear table, but before the set was over they had gone.

I don't think Charlie ever did play as good trombone as he did that night. But I always will remember it. And he will too.


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